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The first terrorist act in Indonesian prison: the triggers and how to prevent them

Indonesia witnessed another terrorist act last week. But, this time, it occurred in a maximum-security detention centre located at the police’s Mobile Brigade headquarters in Depok, West Java.

More than 150 terrorist detainees incited a riot following their protests against security treatments in the prison, guarded by the anti-terror police squad. During a 36-hour stand-off, the inmates seized dozens of weapons and killed five guards by brutally cutting their throats. One terrorist inmate was also killed during the incident.

Unconfirmed videos and photos on the horrific act circulated on social media. Amaq News Agency, linked to Islamic State (IS), has claimed that IS was behind the attack. From 156 terrorist inmates in the prison, at least ten are IS supporters.

Many believe that this terrorist act is new and unprecedented. We talked to two experts to understand the reasons behind this brutal act and how Indonesia can prevent similar attacks from happening.

Poor prison management

Leopold Sudaryono from Australian National University argued that Indonesia’s poor prison management had triggered the incident.

“It is a tip of an iceberg of the government’s failures in managing their prison facilities,” said the doctoral candidate who is writing his dissertation on prison management in six provinces in Indonesia.

Indonesian prisons are plagued with problems ranging from poor facilities, corrupt practices to overcrowding.

Leopold’s research found that food served in the prison complex was far from decent.

“They call it "Nasi Cadong”, comprises only of rice, wet vegetables and sometimes a side dish. This is worth around Rp 15,000 (US$1.07) while the original budget is set around Rp 40,000,“ he said.

The riot broke after an inmate became furious when a guard refused to deliver food sent out by his family according to media reports.

"It may be trivial, but the food issue has been a classical problem in Indonesian prisons,” Leo said.

Rampant corrupt practices in jail have become another source of problems. They not only lead to poor services for inmates but also allow inmate misconducts in prison.

It is common knowledge that inmates in Indonesian prisons can get whatever they want as long as they can pay. This explains the common use of illegal drugs in Indonesian prisons. Detainees can also get access to mobile phones that are actually prohibited inside cells.

Such corrupt practices had caused many prison uprisings, including a riot in the same penitentiary complex in 2017. The riot occurred after the confiscation of mobile phones belonged to terrorist inmates, who claimed they had obtained a security clearance for the phones.

Lax security in high security prisons

Overcrowding is another issue in Indonesian prisons. The recent data from Search for Common Ground showed that there were 254,000 prisoners in 477 detention complexes in Indonesia that could only house 115,000 inmates.

Overcrowding coupled with relative low number of security officers has made Indonesian prisons prone to conflicts.

“High-security prisons in Indonesia have failed to meet the ideal one guard to four detainees ratio,” Leopold said.

High-security prisons are for offenders of heavy crimes like terrorism and drug cases.

Indonesia aims to have five maximum-security prisons facilities for terrorists and drug convicts in the future, according to Leopold. So far, two such prisons are available in Nusa Kambangan, Central Java while the remaining three are still in progress.

“These prisons must follow specific requirements, including wall thickness and security arrangements,” he said.

From these requirements, it is hard to say that the Depok detention centre is a maximum-security prison, Leopold says.

Leopold believes that all security issues in the Depok detention centre is a ticking time bomb that has finally exploded last week.

The rise of new style terrorism

In addition to poor prison management, Noor Huda Ismail of Monash University views that the terrorist operation inside the prison was instigated by the rise of new generation of terrorists.

“They are more brutal and non-compromising, different from their predecessors,” Noor Huda explained.

Previous terrorist organisations such as Jamaah Islamiyah responsible for the Bali Bombings were bound by collective spirit and values, he said. The perpetrators of the Depok incident were more individualistic.

“They are connected through social media. They build an understanding on jihad fights from what they see on Facebook,” he said.

Noor Huda believed that these terrorists were more radical than their seniors as they were self recruited with social media.

“They create their own imagination on how jihad should be done from social media,” Noor Huda said.

This explains their act of cutting police guard’s throats in the incident.

“They may have been inspired by IS acts on social media,” he said, adding such method had never been done by Indonesian terrorists.

Preventive measures

To deal with the new generation of terrorists, Noor Huda said that the government should come up with a multidimensional approach involving all aspects in the society as the spread of terrorism propaganda occurred across borders via the Internet.

“The religious leaders, educators and parents should play an important role to avoid young generation from being influenced by terrorism,” he said.

Meanwhile, Leopold suggested the improvement in Indonesia’s prison management to avoid similar incident in the future.

Due to the lack of resources, he suggested the government to change its prison arrangement for terrorist convicts by locking them in one prison.

Under the current system, the government jails terrorist convicts in different facilities. Currently, there are 271 terrorist inmates spread in 68 detention centres across country.

By putting the terrorist inmates in one prison, the government can also stop them from recruiting other convicts to become their members.

Leopold also called the government to overhaul its prison managements by improving the service and eradicating corrupt practices.

“Giving them bad services will give them justification for their terrorist acts. We must stop giving them reasons by giving them proper and humane services in prisons,” he said.

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